Will Steve Austin and Barney Miller Bring Down the Plane That Couldn’t Land?



A planeload of distinct randos and a handful of early-1980s TV luminaries get more than they bargained for when their trip to Sydney, Australia goes a bit out of this world.  When the world’s first hypersonic passenger flight finds itself drastically off course and in outer space, it’s up to Steve Austin and Barney Miller (not really) to save the day.  Yes, it’s the TV team-up everyone had been waiting for: Lee Majors, playing the plane’s pilot who must keep his cool, and Hal Lindon, playing the stressed scientific engineering expert who must figure out how to save the day.

Starflight One, as it was released theatrically in parts of the world and is titled for this disc, or, as it was known on its native habitat of broadcast television, Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Land, is very much a contrived disaster movie.  Ray Milland, playing a tightwad capitalist in a suit who spends most of the film staring slack-jawed at scopes and monitors alongside of underpaid technicians, makes the early dire mistake of demanding that this flight occur before the vehicle has been safety inspected.  Sure enough, things go sideways (and upside-down, and cork-screwy, and barrel-rolling) once the sleek aircraft finally takes off.  Losing fuel and oxygen, time is of the essence.  But this ride wasn’t built for the stars…!

This new Blu-ray edition from Code Red boasts a brand new 2K master in the 1.66:1 aspect ratio.  Is this the proper aspect ratio, you ask?  IMDb, for what it’s worth, lists the film as having been 1.85:1 in its theatrical release, courtesy of Orion Pictures, and of course 1.33:1 for its television airing.  What we get here is a terrifically clear and tidy compromise transfer (no idea if the 1:66.1 version originated with this Blu-ray), with composition that appears intentional. The only bonus feature on the disc is a trailer for the film.  Where were all those TV-movie-loving Film Historian commentors when this Blu-ray went into production?  There must be stories to be told about this film.  In my own very limited research, it does appear that Starflight: The Plane That Couldn’t Landwas well watched in its day, and remains quite well known, considering its ilk.

One reason for this is certainly its star power (which also includes Lauren Hutton as Majors’ ex-wife, and Tess Harper in a small role), but also its small-screen-bursting production value.  Visual effects ace John Dykstra (of Star Wars fame) gets prominent billing both onscreen and on the Blu-ray case, though “a galaxy far, far away”, this ain’t.  Starflight One is far too languid in its tension-building to approach the level of popular space fantasy of the time.  That, though, was not the goal.  Often, by design, between the eerie vacuum of space and the technical din of the various control rooms and whatnot, the movie is downright quiet.  (The great Lalo Schifrin provides music, which the movie could use more of) In the cockpit, they mention that the passengers are so scared that many have gone into shock.

So, how on Earth (or more aptly, how not on Earth) does a situation like this resolve with some semblance of dramatic satisfaction?  Thankfully, the world was in the thrall of space shuttle fever, and it just worked out that in no time at all, NASA could send Columbia up to offer a helping hand.  But, this being a disaster movie, it cannot be that simple.  Spoiler Alert: the space shuttle Columbia ends up making four trips in the desperate attempt to save the fifty-plus people aboard Starflight One.  Up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down.  At one point, the attempted solution of tethering one vessel to the other with a big airtight coiled collapsible IKEA-style children’s crawl-through tube proves a less than ideal answer.  Sending a key cast member across the void in a coffin, however, works out much better.

If there’s a lesson to be derived from Starflight One, it might be that if an international flight from the U.S. to Sydney in two and a half hours sounds too good to be true, well, that’s because it is.  It really, really is.  Australia may never be graced with the presence of cool Steve Austin and manic Barney Miller (or whatever their characters in this are called), but it’s a darn good thing those network stars were on hand for that fateful inaugural jaunt to the actual stars.